Arendt Paper Essay, Research Paper
Arendt s Understanding of Public Spaces
This critical essay is about Arendt s understanding of public spaces. In this essay I will show how she understands the distinction between action, labor, and work and the relation between freedom, power and action. In the conclusion of this essay, I will show that the city of Chicago in both its architecture and its public spaces does not exhibit Arendt s notion of the public.
Labor is the activity which corresponds to the biological process of the human body, whose spontaneous growth, metabolism, and eventual decay are bound to the vital necessities produced and fed into the life process by labor. In ordinary terms, labor is just life itself. According to Arendt, labor is a necessity that all living things do to survive and in this, we have no distinction between animals and ourselves. With labor, all we do is produce and consume, keeping to ourselves, not talking to anyone because it is more efficient. In Arendt s point of view, a life devoted to labor is bad because to truly live, according to Arendt, is to become public, to be known, to be recognized, but to stay silent and to your self, you then are never really alive. She also calls labor as repetitive, that is, it is just an endless cycle of consumption and production and it has no beginning nor a future.
Work is the activity which corresponds to the unnaturalness of human existence, which is not imbedded in, and whose mortality is not compensated by, the species ever-recurring life cycle. Work provides an artificial world of things, distinctly different from all natural surroundings. (HC p.7) To Arendt, work is good because it had an endurance that labor did not, work could last over the years, while in labor, you consume as you produce. When a carpenter builds a house, that house can last for hundreds of years, remembered longer than the person who built it, but an apple, only lasts for a short while before it is consumed, forgotten an hour after it was eaten. Work is multiplicity, that is, you do something new every time, it has a beginning and an end, even though the end is outside the actual activity. An example of this would be when a carpenter builds a table, the table is still being used after the builder is done building it, it does not have an end until you break it apart and throw it away.
Action, the only activity that goes on directly between men without the intermediary of things or matter, corresponds to the human condition of plurality, to the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world. (HC p.7) What Arendt means by this is that we have to go out and be among everyone else, to act, to do something that we are recognized for, or we truly do not live. Action is the disclosure of the who, it tells people who we are, the way we are, it is what makes us immortal, being able to be remembered over the ages. Action has a beginning and an end in itself and gives us the capacity to begin something new.
In The Human Condition, Arendt clearly shows that she understands the distinction between action, labor, and work. For Arendt, the world appears only in work and action, not labor. The rather uncomfortable truth of the matter is that the triumph the modern world has achieved over necessity is due to the emancipation of labor, that is, to the fact that the animal laborans was permitted to occupy the public realm . (HC p.133-134) She later goes on to say that, as long as the animal laborans remains in possession of it, there can be no true public realm, but only private activities displayed in the open. What she is basically saying is that she is very concerned about a society of just consumers because consumption not only destroys freedom, it also gets rid of the public spaces. What used to be private turn into the public realm and the public realm just disappears.
Work and action, however, are multiplicities, that is, they are not repetitious, the are different. Work has a beginning and an end and so does action, but work has its end outside of the activity, while action has its beginning and end inside itself. Action is fragile while work has endurance and can last. Work redeems labor because it gives it and order, permanence. If the animal laborans needs the help of homo faber to ease his labor and remove his pain acting and speaking men need the help of homo faber in highest capacity, that is, the help of the artist, of poets and historiographers, or monument-builders or writers, because without them the only product of their activity, the story they enact and tell, would not survive at all. (HC p.173)
Power is what keeps the public realm, the potential space of appearance between acting and speaking men, in existence . Power springs up between men when the act together and vanishes the moment they disperse power is to an astonishing degree independent of material factors, either of numbers or means. (HC p. 200) Power is the ability to persuade someone, ability to make someone do what you want them to do. According to Arendt, power does not survive what brought it into being, but disappears with the disappearance of men and the disappearance or arrest of the activities themselves.
Arendt s understanding of the relationship between freedom, power, and action is very evident in The Human Condition. For power, like action, is boundless; it has no physical limitation in human nature, in the bodily existence of man, like strength. (HC p. 201) What Arendt is basically saying here is that action and power are only limited what humans make them to be. She also says that you need action in order for power and that power is acting in concert, doing something with a lot of other people. Arendt also describes freedom as the ability to move, if you are free, then you have power and you are able to act with others. If people were unable to move around, they could not gather and act in concert, they would just stay to themselves and power would not exist. So what she is saying is that each one of these three need each other in one form or another, power need action, power needs freedom, freedom needs action, and action needs freedom.
This beginning is not the same as the beginning of the world; it is not the beginning of something but of somebody, who is a beginner himself. With the creation of man, the principle of beginning came into the world itself, which, of course, is only another way of saying that the principle of freedom was created when man was created but not before. (HC p. 177) This rule also applies to power. Without a beginning, people getting together for one cause, there would be no power, power would not exist. This shows how action, freedom, and power need each other in order to survive.
Arendt s definition of the public is: first, that everything that appears in public can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity. Second, the term public signifies the world itself, in so far as it is common to all of us and distinguished from our privately owned place in it. (HC p.50-52) Public are those things we do freely, like visit a friend, or go see a movie. She also believes for someone to be public, they need to appear so that others can see them and that everyone in the public is treated with equality and everything is distinct.
Going along with Arendt s definition of public, I would have to say that the city of Chicago in both its architecture and its public spaces are not public. Looking at the buildings downtown, or walking around the many neighborhoods of Chicago, you notice that there is really nothing distinctive of one house from the next or from one building to the next. They all look the same and if someone where to get rid of the addresses, a lot of the people would be lost and claim that that house is their house, or that one is.
The public places in Chicago are really no longer public in the eyes of Arendt. Today s society has no time for leisure or freedom, everyone is out producing or consuming, or they are behind their computers in their cubicles, staying private, trying not to appear. In Chicago s public spaces, the private has become the public with people living in them, people eating in them, and people doing or acting the way they should act only behind closed doors. Chicago s ethnic diversity and pride also shows the fact that no one is treated equal, someone is better that someone one place, but that person is better somewhere else. Chicago just would not be considered a public space in Arendt s eyes.
These are Arendt s understandings of public spaces. She understands the distinction between action, labor, and work and the relation between freedom, power, and action. If Arendt was around today, she would probably take a look at Chicago and laugh because it has become everything she feared the public would.